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Apple needs to learn how the Internet works before iCloud evaporates

Last week a former Apple employee posted a scathing breakdown of Apple's cluelessness in cloud services. The article notes that Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is learning to grok cloud services.

Let's see, we've gone through iTools (yes, I'm ignoring eWorld), dot mac (the very name was awkward), iWork.com (forever a beta, now defunct) plus MobileMe and now... iCloud. For users of all of these services, the reality of the experience fell short of the promises made by Apple at packed-to-capacity keynotes. In the case of MobileMe's calamitous debut, those failures meant a team-wide, brutal evisceration by the CEO. Is the same angry finger-pointing happening now? Maybe it should be.

Apple makes great hardware, adequate software and terrible web services. It's a huge problem for the company, and it will continue to weigh Apple down as iCloud continues to offer sync and data management nightmares.

This time it's personal

Let's ignore the myriad App Store errors. Let's forget what a clusterfudge MobileMe was, or how Apple-hosted mail dies like Prometheus (regularly and painfully). And does anyone even recall the "exclusive" dot mac Dashboard widgets we were promised? No, you do not, for good reason.

Apple hasn't seemed to have its eye firmly on this stuff until very recently, when it realized that forcing customers to connect their Mac or Windows machine with a cable to sync iDevices was a patently bad idea. Well, that and Google (and pretty much everyone else in the Valley) has been beating them to death with excellent online services for a few years now.

My own bout of horrid luck with Apple's ignorance of data integrity and web tech kicked off over Thanksgiving. While returning from a friend's new home, I needed directions to my own house. I figured I'd ask Siri for directions (again, let's forget how Siri has been up and down). Whoops! Siri suddenly didn't know where I lived or who I was! Why? Because my own primary account info had been deleted from Contacts. And iCloud. And all my Apple devices using iCloud. Unbelievable. I'm not the only one who has had contacts mystically disappear.

Granted, the designation for the "primary contact" or "My Info" is a local Siri setting, not something that would necessarily sync back to iCloud. It's not linked automatically to your Messages emails, for instance; those are stashed in iCloud directly, and I've been able to associate a number of former emails (@mac and @me) with various iDevices so Messages could route to them.

You'd think that there might be a flag to prevent your "My Info" contact from vaporizing, so the "me" the iPhone knows is a bit more protected. On the other hand, it would potentially be weirder if the iPhone didn't respect contact changes from the cloud (iCloud.com, in this case) and left you with a phantom, unsynced "me" contact.

At any rate, I soon discovered a number of my family members had been deleted, including my dad and my children. The relationships were saved into my primary contact, which was also deleted. My mom was still in there, along with six instances of Apple, Inc.

Since I started using contacts across devices and syncing them, way back in the Palm Pilot Pro days, I've never had such a massive screw-up with my data. Duplicates are one thing. Removing user data without warning or even good reason, at the risk of breaking things (like Siri and Maps), is just bad business. To be fair, things can go awry if you hold your nose wrong in Google and Exchange contacts, but what is baffling is the inconsistent behavior and the inability to pin down how sync is really working.

I tried a number of tricks to divine how things got so messed up, scouring my Macs, iCloud.com and my iDevices for discrepancies. At one time I had four multiples for almost every contact. At another time I had half the contacts I had before. I still have a huge mess on my Mac, including 4 copies of every group I've ever created (which are practically useless as Apple doesn't seem to grok groups that well either -- add that to the ever-growing list). But I did manage to stem the magical deletions.

Incidentally, a call to Apple for help left the tech handling the call baffled, and none of my questions about the sanctity of my data were answered. I solved this problem on my own. Here's something I learned: if you want to see what Apple really thinks you have in our address book, log in to iCloud.com and check. iCloud represents "the truth" as far as PIM data is concerned -- it stores the only real copy of your data. I'm still unable to remove the 800 or so duplicates in Contacts, but for now I'd rather err on the side of keeping the data rather than losing it.

Fixing contacts

If you're having issues with contacts, I encourage you to check out these potential solutions. My issue was far simpler, it seems. One of the joys of being a loyal Apple customer for three decades means that I have a plethora of email suffixes. My iPad 3 happened to be using @mac.com to log in to iCloud, whereas everything else appears to have been using @me.com. Unfortunately the email forwarding config is completely independent from the Apple ID being used to sync your various iCloud applications. I made the mistake of presuming my Apple ID suffixes wer somewhat interchangeable. For a while, it really seemed like that worked, since when iOS 6 first came out I tested Maps and at the time Siri knew where I lived. Something changed, but with the black box that is iCloud sync, it's hard to say when.

Apple has some ID issues going forward. For one, you cannot merge Apple IDs. For whatever reason, I happen to only have one Apple ID (that I know of) -- that means I'm a lucky person! Unfortunately Apple's databases apparently cannot divine the sameness in my addresses as it pertains to iCloud services. Thus, the one disturbance in the force (a different suffix on my account email) was enough to start deleting contacts, willy-nilly.

I don't know about you, but if I were a small business owner I would think again before trusting my data with Apple after reading just a few of the many discussion groups on the topic of data loss around iCloud. I'm still not 100% convinced that iCloud won't just randomly delete my data. As a lifelong Apple customer, I find myself hesitant to recommend its products because of this critical failure. Your data is hardly more replaceable than your device, but I sometimes forget Apple is in the hardware business.

Things are bad right now, but maybe they'll get better

And "things" are worse than most people know. In almost every discussion I've had with developers, I hear some horror story about iCloud. Ordinary users are bitten regularly with missing data, and not just contacts. We're talking about work documents. Can you get those back? Often, you cannot. There is no Time Machine for iCloud documents on iOS. Versioning? Good luck with it. How we wish Apple could have bought Dropbox. Issues with iCloud document management are documented elsewhere, so I won't go into that. I'm talking about Apple being incapable of simply storing your data. It seems the company just can't do it. I don't know that I can stand another @whatever, either. I wish Apple would pick a technology and stick with it.

In perspective, iCloud issues represent a small group of dismayed customers. As I kvetched on Twitter about my predicament, I was reminded by others how data is routinely lost across a variety of company cloud offerings.

No system is perfect, that much is obvious. But what is also obvious to me is that Apple, on a fundamental level, does not get cloud services. This is wasn't a big deal in the eWorld days, but today it's the biggest problem Apple may face.

iTunes Match, iCloud mail, Messages -- the list of failures in this area is growing longer than the hardware achievements of the company. There's a Twitter account for iCloud downtime that makes the former IT nerd in me want to Hulk smash some Xserves.

In the end, it could be these user-facing services and their continuing failures that impacts the bottom line of Apple. What Apple needs to do is focus on the back end for a bit and fix the underlying technology problems a few legacy systems have caused. Stuff like taking an entire store offline to update a product catalog is no longer retro chic, it's downright embarrassing. The biggest question of all is whether Apple will figure this out before it is too late. Then again, maybe next year we'll finally get an update to the Mac Pro.

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